Sunday, 21 May 2017

We Need to Talk About NEETs

It's that wonderful time of year again when young people across the country are ushered into sweaty  sports halls and pitted against each other in a Battle of the Biros for the top GCSE grades. They will have reached the summit of formal education after a long and arduous eleven year hike. For many, this will pay dividends as they collect their golden ticket in August, opening doors to further education and/ or employment. However, for a worryingly large number of young people it will also mark the end of an unhappy educational journey as they leave with very few (if any) qualifications and a hatred of schooling. Many of those young people will sadly go on to become NEETs; those who are Not in Education, Employment or Training and lost in the wilderness of young adulthood. I have worked with many NEETs through my previous employment as a Youth Worker. They are decent young people who just want a chance to get on in life, however, they are often ignored in day-to-day educational discourse.  

According to official statistics, the amount of NEETs in England is approximately 800,000 or 11% of the 16 - 24 year old demographic (Mizra-Davies and Brown, 2016; Chandler, 2017). However,  these figures are somewhat misleading as there are a significant number of NEETs whose status is ‘unknown’ and are therefore are receiving no support whatsover  (Fabian Society, 2014). In reality, the number of NEETs is probably closer to a million (Coffield and Williamson, 2012). Nonetheless, even if we take the official figures, it is still above the average for the European Union (I'm one of the 48%) and slightly below that of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries (OECD, 2016). That means we have more NEETs than countries such as Slovenia and Estonia; though we did manage beat them in this year's Eurovision so c'est la vie. Back in the UK, some of the most deprived areas of the country are unsurprisingly those with the highest number of NEETs. For example, in the North-East almost 19% of young people between the ages of 16 – 24 are NEETs which is considerably higher than the national average (14%). My area, the North West, is also above the national average for England. While I live in leafy Chester their are pockets of deep deprivation across the area such as Oldham, which is the most deprived town in England and where unemployment, low levels of education and poor health are all dominant social features. Compare this with the South East of England (8.4%) and you can see the huge regional disparities between the more affluent/ impoverished areas and the resulting number of NEETs. 

While NEETs are not a static homogenous group, Russell (2013) provides a pretty sobering and saddening insight into some of the characteristics of this marginalised and disenfranchised group: 
  1. They have very few or no formal qualifications. According to the OECD (2016), 39% of NEETs have not completed secondary education. 
  2. They have very low levels of literacy with reading ages that are often significantly below their actual age.
  3. Many are from socio-economic disadvantaged backgrounds and have been entitled to Free School Meals (eFSM). 
  4. They often have mental health issues with many young people also dependent upon alcohol and/ or drugs.  
A system that fails so many young lives is a failing system. This is, of course, not a criticism of teachers who work tirelessly to help young people. One of the main problems, however, is that many interventions are put in place far too late with very little impact or no impactThere are no magic bullets to solve reduce the large number of NEETs but a few proactive measures might just help...

1. Invest heavily in EY provision as data suggests that by the age of 3 children from disadvantaged backgrounds are already a year behind their more affluent peers (Coffield and Williamson, 2012). Furthermore, extensive research studies have shown that investment in early years not only promotes social equity but is also economically efficient (Heckman, 2011). Investing early on 

2. Offer a prestigious vocational alternatives to the narrow academic curriculum in schools. The Ebacc has narrowed the curriculum even further as it doesn't recognise 'non-academic' qualifications. Just look at our European neighbours such as Germany who invest heavily in vocational training for young people. Children should be able to do vocational courses at the age of 14 and schools shouldn't be penalised for them doing so. 

3. Spend more money on mental health support. Schools don't need a designated mental health teacher, they need access to mental health experts and counsellors. 

4. Challenge the narrative. These young people do not become NEETs because they've not worked hard enough in school. Many these young people come from disadvantaged backgrounds and face complex barriers to learning. It is not their fault. 

So, as this year's exam season passes and the young people wait anxiously for their results it is worth remembering that for many it won't be cause for celebration. More needs to be done by the next government to ensure fewer children leave formal education without any qualifications or  prospects for the future.  


Brooks, R. (2014), ‘Out of Sight; How we lost track of thousands of NEETS, and how we can transform prospects’, Fabian Society.

Coffield, F. and Williamson, B. (2012). From Exam Factories to Communities of Discover; The democratic route. London: Institute of Education, University of London.

Chandler, M. (2017), ‘Young people not in education, employment or training (NEET)’, Office of National Statistics.

Heckman, J. (2011). The Economics of Inequality: The Value of Early Childhood Education, American Educator, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 47. 

Mizra-Davies, J. and Brown, J. (2016), ‘NEET: Young People Not in Education, Employment or Training’, House of Commons Library.

Morrisroe, J. (2014), ‘Literacy Changes Lives 2014: A new perspective on health, employment and crime’, National Literacy Trust.

OECD (2016), ‘The UK at a Glance 2016; Spotlight on the youth’, OECD.

Russell, L. (2013). Researching marginalised young people. Ethnography and Education. Vol. 8, No. 1, pp. 46 - 60. 

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